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THE WORLD

More arrested in Iraq crackdown

June 21, 2008|Haydar al-Alak and Alexandra Zavis | Special to The Times

AMARAH, IRAQ — Iraqi security forces waging a crackdown on gangsters and militiamen in the southeastern city of Amarah arrested at least 45 more suspects Friday, drawing complaints of heavy-handedness from representatives of influential Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada Sadr.

The operation, which has met little resistance since it began Thursday, is part of a drive to restore government authority in areas of the country that have fallen under the control of armed Sunni Arab and Shiite factions, including Sadr's followers.

A similar crackdown in the southern port city of Basra in March sparked fierce fighting with Sadr's Mahdi Army militia there and in the Baghdad district of Sadr City.

The cleric's followers accused rival factions in the Shiite-led government of using the Basra operation to sabotage their movement ahead of provincial elections this fall. More than 1,000 people were killed in clashes.

To avoid further casualties, Sadr's representatives said, he had ordered his fighters to cooperate with the crackdown in Amarah, a Mahdi Army stronghold and reputed smuggling hub for weapons from Iran.

Adnan Selawi, who heads Sadr's office in Amarah, the capital of Maysan province, told the Reuters news agency that the cleric's followers in the city had hoped the crackdown would be professional. "But unfortunately we found many breaches and violations," he said, accusing security forces of harassing civilians, random shootings and beatings.

Another Sadr representative, however, told The Times that the cleric's populist movement would continue to cooperate with the security forces.

"There are orders from his eminence Muqtada Sadr to not react," said the official, who asked not to be identified for safety reasons. "No one will object to the authority of the state or the army."

Sadr's movement dominates government institutions in Maysan, and scores of government employees have been detained in the crackdown, including the mayor of Amarah.

Among those arrested Friday were 20 policemen accused of using their positions as cover to kidnap and kill, said a spokesman for the Interior Ministry. The director in charge of provincial irrigation projects also was apprehended after weapons were found at his office, the local police command said.

Prime Minister Nouri Maliki, himself a Shiite, drew criticism at the start of the Basra crackdown for running a hasty and disorganized campaign that did not anticipate the scale of the backlash from Sadr's followers. But Maliki's stature has surged since the cleric ordered his followers to stop resisting the government's forces.

Sadr has said he wants to purge his movement of renegades. His followers have also voiced concern that the violent showdown was costing the movement militarily and losing it popular support.

Also Friday, an American soldier was killed and five were injured in three roadside bombings in volatile Diyala province, military officials said. At least 4,102 U.S. service members have been killed since the Iraq war started in March 2003, according to the independent website icasualties.org.

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alexandra.zavis@latimes.com

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Special correspondent Alak reported from Amarah and Times staff writer Zavis from Baghdad. Special correspondents in Baghdad and Basra contributed to this report.

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